Today’s announcement by JD Power that two Canadian Toyota plants won quality awards is heartening news for a company that recently went through some problems with final product quality. As many of us predicted, Toyota managed to recover from its difficulties and its reputation as a quality leader remains high.
The tools at techniques of the Toyota Production System (TPS) are now well-known and disseminated as “Lean Manufacturing”. Many firms have adopted these best practices into their operations, with usually beneficial results, particularly in the areas of quality, cost and lead time performance.
Yet, despite the widespread imitation of Toyota’s production system tools and techniques, few new Toyota’s have emerged. While the tools and techniques of TPS can be imitated, it appears that not all of Toyota’s DNA can be successfully replicated.
Why should this be so? My own answer to this question is that the things that makes Toyota Toyota cannot be copied. These are Toyota’s unique organizational culture and its unrivalled ability to obtain contribution from its wider workforce day in and day out.
Copying the tools and techniques of TPS is not the same as copying Toyota. In fact, copying best practices is fraught with danger: you can often imitate, but not replicate, what someone else has done. More importantly, you short-circuit the learning process: what shaped Toyota’s culture was the firm’s dedication to experimentation and learning – learning by doing, because until Toyota came long, the tools and techniques of TPS didn’t exist.
There is too much emphasis today in business on copying and adopting best practices invented by others. If you don’t have the same problem as someone else, their solution may not work for you. What’s really important is for firms to think about their problems, learn by experimenting and doing, and develop their own solutions and best practices.